I can’t really speak French, but I cook in French. For years, I studied conjugations and the passé simple, practiced pronouncing yaourt and grenouille, but try as I might I just couldn’t seem to master it beyond the essentials like “deux pains au chocolat, s’il vous plaît.”
In the kitchen, however, I am fluent. The fistfuls of garlic and thyme, the pebbly feel of gray sel marin de Guérande between my fingers, and the lushness of an emulsifying sauce are now so ingrained, I can cook in French without thinking. The ethereal creaminess of a soufflé, the anchovy funk of a pissaladière and the caramelized depth of boeuf Bourguignon are as deeply part of me as the bagels and lox we ate in Brooklyn every Sunday.
That merging of classic French cuisine and the food I grew up eating in Brooklyn is the foundation of how I approach cooking. To me, the cuisines are not two distinct things, but rather seamlessly intertwined into a glorious whole, because I learned about them at the same time. Yes, we waited in line for Di Fara’s pizza, Lundy’s clams, and chicken feet and tripe at our favorite dim sum palace. And we also spent countless weekends fussing over Julia Child’s terrines and Jacques Pépin’s coq au vin, which my mother might slather on leftover challah, and my dad might spike with soy sauce (sorry, Jacques). It wasn’t irreverence so much as an intense culinary curiosity, a playful exploration of the delicious. All of these influences are so essential to the way I think about food that they’re the touchstones of every recipe I create.
None of this would have happened if my Great-Aunt Martha and Great-Uncle Jack hadn’t dragged my parents on their first trip to Europe — seven countries in 25 days — after medical school in 1960. My dad, whose ideal vacation up until then was fishing in the Catskills, didn’t want to go. But they went and fell hard for France, getting hooked on escargot, extra-crispy frites, and the high culture of Monet-filled museums and Gothic cathedrals, all so astoundingly ancient and different from the Yeshiva-centric Brooklyn they grew up in. My parents went back every year, first by themselves, then with my sister and me in tow.
My family’s true connection to the French was through our shared obsession with the food — learning about it, exploring it and preparing lavish feasts with it. When we weren’t cooking, we were planning the next meal, chasing the daily markets from small town to even smaller town, reveling in the figs, the sausages, the incredible cheeses we couldn’t get at home.
We also went to fancy restaurants. It was my dad’s quest to eat in every Michelin-starred restaurant in France, and he came pretty close, despite getting lost along the way. Pre-GPS, losing our way on tiny country roads was just a normal part of the journey to a meal. When my kindergarten teacher asked me what I did with my parents every August in France, I said, “First we get lost, then we have lunch.”
And this is exactly how I approach cooking. Yes, there are times I might meander down a seemingly dead end of harissa gougères only to end up with a buoyant soufflé, but I always find my way because, really, I’m not going very far. It’s all right there, rooted in my New York-Jewish-Francophile DNA. And my cooking ends up playfully and unmistakably French. At our house, the conversation might be in English, but dinner’s in French.
This article is an excerpt from “Dinner in French: My Recipes by Way of France” by Melissa Clark (Clarkson Potter, 2020).